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Childhood vaccinations still essential
Health advice
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National Infant Immunization Week, April 24-May 1, is fast-approaching, and it serves as a very important reminder of the need to immunize children against most diseases by the time they are 2. The theme for the 2010 week is “Love Them, Protect Them, Immunize Them.”
The No. 1 goal of every parent, grandparent and pediatrician should be to keep all babies safe and healthy the moment they are introduced to the world. Infant immunization awareness is especially important now because of the recent bad press it has been getting, which suggests there is a link between immunizations and autism. Even though scientists have proven this not the case, many parents still believe there is a causative factor between autism and vaccines, and they refuse to get their children immunized.
Most children are born with some immunity to certain diseases. While still in the mother’s body, disease-fighting antibodies pass through the placenta from the mother to the unborn child. And if the baby is breastfed, they get additional benefits from antibodies in breast milk. But in both instances, the immunity is only temporary and the children eventually will be at risk for diseases.
In the past, millions of children worldwide died or were disabled by diseases they had no resistance to. Epidemics were not uncommon among people of all ages, but children were especially vulnerable.
A marvelous scientific advance, vaccination is an artificial way of creating natural resistance or immunity to certain diseases. The process is accomplished by using relatively harmless substances called antigens that come from or are similar to the components of the microorganisms that cause disease.
These microorganisms can be viruses, such as the measles virus, or they can be bacteria, such as the one that causes pneumonia. Vaccines made from these microorganisms stimulate the body’s immune system into reacting as if there were a real infection. The immune system will then fight off this infection and will even “remember” the organism so it can fight it off quickly if it re-enters the body in the future.
In addition to concern over autism, some parents hesitate to take their children to get certain vaccines because they are worried about complications or that children may develop the illness the vaccine is supposed to prevent. While it is true that some vaccines may have side effects, the likelihood of this happening is very small and not immunizing a child exposes them to far greater health risks associated with contracting the disease than possible side effects or complications.
Immunization is one of the best means of protecting a child against contagious diseases. In the United States, vaccine-preventable childhood diseases are at record- or near-record-low levels. But that does not mean these diseases have disappeared. Many viruses and bacteria that cause destructive diseases are still circulating — or are just a plane ride away. That’s why it’s important that children, especially infants, receive recommended immunizations on time.
While it is true that a single child’s chance of catching a disease is low if everyone around that child is immunized, if one person thinks about skipping vaccines, chances are other people are thinking the same thing. And each child who is not immunized gives these highly contagious diseases one more opportunity to spread. This actually happened from 1989-1991 when a measles epidemic broke out in the United States. Lapsing rates of immunization among preschoolers led to a sharp jump in the number of measles cases, as well as the number of deaths and children with permanent brain damage. Similar outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) struck Japan and the United Kingdom in the 1970s after their immunization rates declined.
Even though vaccination rates are fairly high in the United States, there is no possible way to know if everyone your child comes into contact with has been vaccinated — especially now that so many people travel to and from other countries. As the 1999 outbreak of encephalitis from West Nile virus in New York showed, a disease can hop halfway around the world extremely fast because of international travel. The best way to protect your child remains through immunization.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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